Long before I was born, author Earnest Hemingway coined a philosophy on writing called The Iceberg Theory.
The idea behind his theory is that as a writer, you should know so much about your idea that you’ll actually need to use FEWER words to engage the reader.
He explains it here:
“If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. And the reader. . . will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.” –Ernest Hemingway
For Hemingway (a former journalist who learned early on the art of making every word count), his theory was that the metaphorical tip of the iceberg holds everything that our audience sees – the story, the action, the characters, the dialogue. But this isn’t where our audiences find meaning and purpose.
Instead, the most magical parts of a story – emotion, themes, symbolism, subtext – are always found BELOW the surface.
I imagine that Hemingway’s analogy is similar to someone who walks into a room and decides to drop a timely joke because she can feel the tension.
No one needs to announce, “Hey, we’re all fighting right now.” The subtext does all the work, and the power of what’s unspoken becomes more influential than anything that could be described or explained through human language.
I also believe that this is why two people can watch a movie and walk away with an entirely different interpretation of the story.
Last year, my husband and I watched Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up. My husband couldn’t see past the biting political satire. I got completely engulfed by the subtext.
For him, it was too political – a morality tale designed to alienate rather than unite.
For me, it was tragedy – a story where faith and science can coexist, but too few of us are willing to surrender our entrenched ideologies to discover HOW to make that happen.
In the end, it wasn’t the film that got us talking. It was the subtext, and as we submerged ourselves into that subtext, we were able to step into the film’s hidden world and write pieces of the story for ourselves.
THE IDEA OF SUBTEXT DOESN’T END WITH HEMINGWAY.
In the 1960s, anthropologist Edward Hall developed a similar model on understanding culture.
His Iceberg Model argued that there are major differences between the internal (below the surface) and external aspects (above the surface) of culture.
Hall believed that if we really want to understand the stories belonging to a particular society, then we have to move beyond what we can see and immerse ourselves into the unseen.
For Hall, the external aspects of culture represent just the tip of the iceberg, and if we stop short by merely observing the behaviors, customs, and norms of a particular society, then we’ll never be able to truly understand the values and worldviews that inform those behaviors, customs, and norms.
In my own work, I believe the same thing, and it’s why I teach my clients how to look at their brand story with an upside-down approach (ie., beneath the surface first, tip last).
Typically, branding and marketing frameworks emphasize the tip of the iceberg – websites, SEO, courses, new product offerings, scaled services, easy-to-download templates and tools, story frameworks, yada, yada, yada.
And with this approach, it’s as if our main goal is to dumb down our audience enough so they become desensitized to their own humanity.
We want them to feel – but not so much that they start to think for themselves.
We want them to engage – but not so much that they start to ask us hard questions.
We want them to pledge their loyalty – but not so much that they expect us to believe the same things they believe.
In essence, we’re building businesses as though the tip of the iceberg is the only thing that exists in our story, and this is a strategy that has proven catastrophic time and time again.
Pick a brand, any brand, and trace their behavior during COVID and George Floyd. Most rushed to solidarity with the masses, joining sides with the expedient value system and making their stake in the ground crystal clear. On the surface, it was a strategy that made perfect sense, except. . . most brands also forgot to plunge deep beneath the waters and look at the underbelly of their own iceberg.
[Need an example? Just look at Pepsi’s 2017 “Live for Now” campaign featuring Kendall Jenner.
Pepsi had to pull the ad after facing extreme public backlash for trivializing civil rights, public protests, and the Black Lives Matter movement. It became a $2M – $5M mistake and cost Pepsi 4% of its brand value. Many pointed fingers at Pepsi’s in-house creative team, arguing that the gaffe never would have happened had Pepsi gotten an outside perspective. And while that’s possibly true, I believe that the issue goes deeper. Had Pepsi done the hard work to understand its below the surface story from the get-go, it would have avoided the wreckage caused by tip-of-the-iceberg thinking. In hindsight, Pepsi hadn’t authentically positioned itself to step into this type of national conversation. It simply saw a moment of opportunity and believed that fancy choreography and beautiful models could act as a cover for the values it hadn’t actually been living.
As Joe Berkowitz of Fast Company said, “The most important lesson for brands when it comes to choosing sides in a moment of social upheaval is that this is a reckoning, not a bandwagon. You can’t pick a side if it’s not a side you’re demonstrably already on.” ]
MY SIDENOTE WARNING: BANDWAGONS ALWAYS LIVE ON THE UPPER SIDE OF THE ICEBERG.
By the time my clients find their way to me, they’re exhausted from their long ride on the bandwagon.
They’ve hired copywriters, designers, social media experts, SEO gurus, branding agencies, and still, their story isn’t connecting and it isn’t selling.
Through thousands of dollars of lost revenue and stalled business growth, they’ve discovered that planting your flag on the tip of the iceberg isn’t how story transforms.
Instead, it’s what lies beneath the iceberg.
Hemingway called this idea the Iceberg Theory.
Edward Hall called it the Iceberg Model.
I call it your worldview, because like the unseen portion of an iceberg. . .
YOUR WORLDVIEW IS THE INTERNAL FORCE THAT DRIVES EVERY ASPECT OF YOUR BRAND STORY.
It sets the course for the values that order your story and the actions you take to live that story out in real time.
It’s the compass that keeps you on course and guides every feeling, every whim, every dream.
It leads every marketing strategy, every campaign, every funnel, every email, every headline.
It’s the magnet that draws the right people towards you and the force that drives the wrong people away.
It’s the secret code to understanding how you should show up in the marketplace, where you should show up, and when you should show up.
And it helps you frame, position, and even price every service offering.
If it sounds like magic, don’t be fooled.
Worldview is as ancient as the first ray of light to ever hit the earth’s surface.
We cannot direct our lives without it.
We cannot achieve goals without it.
We cannot build communities without it.
It is baked into the DNA of our human soul. And it is baked into the DNA of your brand, too.
As a business leader, knowing your worldview allows you to naturally embody all the brandscape buzzwords that audiences are demanding – authentic, purpose-driven, disruptor, thought leader. You find it by starting with three basic questions. And (fair warning), they are deceptively simple:
Why am I here?
What’s gone wrong with my world?
What can I do to fix it?
These are the questions that unveil all the subtext of your brand – the below-the-surface story that defines your values, your thought patterns, your emotions, your themes and allows your audience to know exactly who you are.
Skip this work, and you become vulnerable to the masses – a kite pulled by the changing winds of values. You’ll speak into spaces where you should be silent. You’ll align with ideas that don’t align with your own. You’ll connect to communities that don’t share your best interests. You’ll build a company that doesn’t know what it stands for or what it stands against.
And before you decide that story is just another bandwagon living on the tip of the iceberg, let me say this:
Story is not a concept that will ever trend out.
It is an unseen appendage to our human existence that drives every aspect of our lives.
As more and more story proliferates into our culture, the only way you can reach your audience is by making sure you know your own subtext, your own below-the-surface thinking, your own worldview.
This is how you write a story worth reading.
This is how you write a story that changes lives.
Wondering how to connect your worldview with your brand story? Get an in-depth plan when you schedule a Power Hour.